In the Fall 1903 issue of the Sewanee Review, Edwin W. Bowen published a eulogy for Frank R. Stockton, who had passed away the previous year. Bowen cited Stockton — a Philly native — as “one of the most genial and brilliant of American authors.” According to Bowen, the writer possessed an unrivaled capacity to spark the imaginations of his young readership. “It was a young heart that beat in his bosom,” Bowen wrote, “and that heart never grew old, despite his advancing years.”
While much of Stockton’s work exists in the sphere of children’s literature, he nonetheless had a sizable (if seldom acknowledged) impact on U.S. literature, penning inventive tales of fantastical and futuristic realms that laid the groundwork for later fantasy and science-fiction writers.
Stockton was born in Blockley Township in Philadelphia County on April 5, 1834. His family descended from old colonial ancestry, which included Richard Stockton, a signee of the Declaration of Independence.
The young Francis showed a natural disposition for writing, taking after his father, who was an accomplished theological writer and minister. Despite his early literary success — he won a Boys’ and Girls’ Journal short-story competition while attending Philadelphia Central High School — his father disapproved of writing as a career and pressured him to pursue medicine.
The minister’s words went unheeded. After finishing high school, Stockton entered the world of publishing. His first foray into print, however, was as a visual artist. He mastered wood-engraving, crafting images that appeared in Vanity Fair, among other publications. He even invented and patented a tool for the craft: the double engraver. Throughout this period of his life, Stockton maintained his passion for writing, composing short stories populated with giants and magical creatures in his free time as he churned out visual art for a living.
After his father passed in 1860, Stockton decided to pursue his original artistic calling. He quit wood-engraving and began publishing stories. He also launched a successful career as an editor, passing through a number of prestigious publications including Hearth and Home, Scribner’s Magazine, and Century Magazine. Perhaps his most influential editorial role was as an assistant editor at St. Nicholas, a magazine that catered to young audiences. The publication — helmed by Mary Mapes Dodge, the creative mind behind the popular children’s novel Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates — was a perfect match for Stockton’s writing interests.
Stockton’s breakout fantasy tale, “Ting-a-Ling,” first appeared in 1867 and was reprinted in a collection of short stories in 1870. Over the next decade, the author’s popularity grew, as more publications began running his work. Declining health led Stockton to give up editing by the early 1880s. His most celebrated work, however, was still to come.
“The Lady, or the Tiger?” began as a literary experiment and evolved into a published story that became a staple of high school literature classes. Stockton first wrote the piece to present before a literary society, but the ensuing debate over its complex theme led to its public release in 1882. It has since become a classic of both U.S. fantasy writing and children’s literature.
In a letter to a friend, Stockton discusses how the success from “The Lady, or the Tiger?” generated nearly impossible professional expectations from magazine editors who flooded him with requests for new stories: “I proceeded to write with all my might. But presently the stories began coming back to me with editorial regrets. … In other words, I found I had ruined my own market by furnishing one story which I could not quite live up to.”
Despite this admission to feelings of inadequacy following the peak of his success, Stockton went on to write more great works that made a cultural impact years after his death. His sci-fi book The Great War Syndicate was a precursor to H.G. Wells’ most popular novels, and pulp magazines popularized his lesser-known science-fiction works in the 1930s.
Stockton passed away on April 20, 1902, and was interred at The Woodlands along the Schuylkill in Philadelphia.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org